CEPI partners with University of Queensland to create rapid-response vaccines

Mario Christodoulou
(L-R_ Prof Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell and Dr Dan Watterson

Government of Australia bolsters its support for CEPI by committing an additional AU$ 4.5 million (US$ 3.2 million)

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the University of Queensland (UQ)—one of the country's leading research institutions—have announced a partnering agreement, worth up to US$ 10.6 million (AU$ 14.7 million), to develop a "molecular clamp" vaccine platform, a transformative technology that enables targeted and rapid vaccine production against multiple viral pathogens.

This funding coincides with the Australian Government committing a further US$ 3.2 million (AU$ 4.5 million) to support CEPI's mission to develop life-saving vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. The funding will come from the Government's Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific, part of the Foreign Affairs portfolio. This additional investment in CEPI follows an initial contribution from Medical Research Futures Fund (MRFF) in 2018. The Australian Government's total investment in CEPI now totals US$4.7 million (AU$ 6.5 million).

How the “molecular clamp” technology works

During infection, viral surface proteins attach to host cells, allowing the virus to enter into the cell. The virus then hijacks the cell's machinery and creates copies of itself. The consequences of viral infection on host cells are what cause illness. The viral surface proteins are prime targets for the immune system, with induced antibodies being able to block the entry of the virus into the cell, and hence prevent infection. However, making vaccines based on these viral surface proteins is challenging. They are unstable and change shape, resulting in an immune response that produces antibodies that do not effectively lock on to viruses and prevent infection.

UQ researchers Prof Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell, and Dr Dan Watterson have developed a process that can synthesise these surface proteins while "clamping" them into shape, making it easier for the immune system to recognise them as the correct antigen. This process requires the sequence of the viral protein, which can be determined from the viral genome. The synthetic antigen can then be purified and rapidly manufactured into a vaccine.

Radically reducing vaccine development time

Vaccines can take years to develop and must go through many phases of research and clinical testing. However, scientists at UQ estimate that their platform could produce hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses suitable for testing within 16 weeks from pathogen identification. This would make it possible to quickly respond to a new and unknown pathogen (also referred to as "Disease X") and vaccinate populations at risk before the disease spreads. Additionally, UQ's vaccine platform does not use live virus at any step during vaccine manufacture, which provides increased assurance of safety.

As part of their partnering agreement with CEPI, UQ will use their molecular-clamp vaccine platform to produce vaccines against Influenza virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and Respiratory Syncytial virus and will evaluate the safety and immune response of the Influenza and MERS-CoV candidates in a phase 1 clinical trial in humans.

This partnership forms part of CEPI's development of a range of innovative ‘just-in-time' technologies that could redefine the nature of vaccine development and vaccine use in emergency situations. In September, 2017, CEPI requested proposals for vaccine platform technologies that enable rapid vaccine development, elicit rapid onset of immunity, and whose production can be scaled-up quickly to respond to outbreaks of Disease X.

35 applications were received from candidates in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries and in academia. This partnership is CEPI's second investment in such platform technologies.

"Australia is committed to our region's health security and recognises the importance of supporting world-leading medical research. We are pleased to support CEPI and its important work preparing the world to fight emerging infectious diseases"

Marise PayneFederal Minister of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Government of Australia

"From Nipah and Hendra viruses to Chikungunya and Zika viruses, the Indo-Pacific region has seen multiple infectious diseases emerge over the past century.”

"We're excited to work with University of Queensland's world-class scientists to advance a potentially transformative vaccine platform. This technology could reduce vaccine development and production times down from years to weeks, boost regional and global health security, and provide the world with a vaccine technology that can act as an insurance policy against Disease X”.

"We're pleased and hugely grateful that Australia is increasing its contribution to our work. Only through collective action can we can hope to protect the world from the threat of large-scale epidemics and we welcome Australia's valuable contribution towards this effort.”

Dr. Richard HatchettChief Executive Officer, CEPI

"As a result of CEPI funding, Australian researchers will have the ability to scale-up and use their pioneering molecular-clamp technology to respond to the emergence of Disease X, which will have important social and economic benefits for Australia, Asia-Pacific, and the rest of the world.”"The Australian Government continued support for CEPI cements its position as a key player in global health and highlights its leading role in global health security.”

Jane HaltonChair of CEPI

"The World Health Organization's Blueprint list of priority diseases recognises that new epidemics can arise from previously known, but also unknown, viruses – the latter referred to as ‘Disease X',”"These new and emerging pathogens have the potential to reach global epidemic levels.”"Molecular clamp technology has been designed as a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and veterinary viruses.”

Prof Paul YoungCo-lead on this research partnership, Head of UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland

"We've had some extremely promising results so far from our trials targeting viruses such as influenza virus, Ebola virus, Nipah virus and MERS coronavirus”.

Dr Keith ChappellCo-lead on the project, The University of Queensland

About vaccine platform technology

The term "vaccine platform technology" broadly refers to a system that uses the same basic components as a backbone, but can be adapted for use against different pathogens by inserting new sequences.

About “molecular clamp” vaccines

Enveloped viruses, like influenza, have proteins on their surface that fuse to host cells during an infection. Although these surface proteins are antigenic—and therefore elicit an immune response—they are inherently unstable. One approach to vaccine design is to synthesise these proteins on their own such that they elicit an immune response, specifically antibodies, that can kill the virus. Unfortunately, they tend to change shape when expressed on their own, a shape that does not reflect the form of the protein on the virus surface. Consequently, the immune response that is induced with these vaccines does not produce antibodies that efficiently lock on to the virus. The University of Queensland has developed a process that can synthesise these surface proteins while "clamping" them into shape, making it easier for the immune system to induce a response that recognises them on the virus surface.

This synthetic antigen can then be purified and rapidly manufactured into a vaccine, within 16 weeks from pathogen identification.

This vaccine platform technology can be used to develop vaccines against a wide range of enveloped viruses (eg, Influenza, Ebola, MERS, Lassa virus, Measles, Herpes Simplex virus, Rabies).

The Molecular Clamp is patented technology developed by Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell, and Dr Dan Watterson.

The University of Queensland will be developing this vaccine platform in collaboration with The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and a wider consortium including public sector and private sector partners in Australia, USA, and Asia.

About CEPI

CEPI is an innovative partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil organisations launched in Davos in 2017 to develop vaccines to stop future epidemics. CEPI has received multi-year funding from Norway, Germany, Japan, Canada, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Wellcome. CEPI has also received single-year investments from the governments of Australia and Belgium. The European Commission forsees substantial financial contributions to support relevant projects through EC mechanisms. CEPI has reached over US$ 740 million of its $1 billion funding target. Since its launch in January 2017, CEPI has announced three calls for proposals. The first call was for candidate vaccines against Lassa virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and Nipah virus—to date, CEPI has invested over $270 million to develop five vaccine candidates against Lassa virus, four against MERS-CoV, and two against Nipah virus. The second call was for the development of platforms that can be used for rapid vaccine development against unknown pathogens. The third call is for candidate vaccines against Rift Valley fever and Chikungunya viruses. Learn more at CEPI.net. Follow us at @CEPIvaccines.

About the Indo-Pacifc Centre for Health Security

The Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security is an Australian whole of government team established to manage and implement the Government's Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific. The Centre is located in Canberra with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and is staffed by a team of specialists from across the Australian Government.

About University of Queensland

UQ rates in the global top 50 as measured by the Permance Ranking of Scientific Papers for World Universities and was recently rated 7th in Biotechnology world in the Shanghai Global Rankings of 2017. Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell, and Dr Dan Watterson have extensive expertise in molecular virology, viral pathogenesis and vaccine research.

Media contacts

Rachel Grant, Director of Communications and Advocacy, CEPI

+44(0)7891249190 | [email protected]

Mario Christodoulou, Communications and Advocacy Manager, CEPI

+44(0)7979300222 | [email protected]

Dominic Jarvis, Engagement Officer (Media & Communication)

[email protected] | +61 413 334 924